Who said it? ‘Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees’


A Tweet from Tim Fargo reminded me of a collection of leadership quotes I put together years ago, and of the digging I did on one particular quote urging action rather than capitulation:

That was the quote I got to, but it’s only attributed to to Zapata so far as I know. I started with the quote cited to Franklin Roosevelt’s speech when he got an honorary Doctor of Laws from Oxford in 1941, when Britain badly needed such inspiration to fight on, in a war for freedom in which the U.S. was not yet actively engaged:

We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), upon receiving the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University, June 19, 1941; special convocation ceremony held at Harvard University, with FDR’s remarks delivered by secretary to the President, Major General Edwin M. Watson

One of a set of ten postcards printed by the Spanish Red Cross, the subjects shown, favor the republican cause. | Spanish. | Wolfsonian Exhibit: Library Vestibule Complement to: Revolutionary Tides, the Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989; February 25 - August 24, 2006.

One of a set of ten postcards printed by the Spanish Red Cross, the subjects shown, favor the republican cause. | Spanish. | Wolfsonian Exhibit: Library Vestibule Complement to: Revolutionary Tides, the Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989; February 25 – August 24, 2006. [Untranslated from Spanish:] Dolores Ibarruri (Pasionaria): Representante de Asturias en el Parlamento de España y figura destacadísima entre las mujeres de la Revolución; Spain Cruz Roja. | Garcia, A. (illustrator.) | Edit. R. Molero (publisher)

When I checked it in the then-current Bartlett’s Quotations I learned it was a common expression during the Spanish Civil War, and attributed to a radio propagandist on the Republican side. It’s likely FDR and his research aides knew that.

It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

Dolores Ibårruri, “La Pasionaria” (1895-1989), Speech in Paris, September 3, 1936

Checking that one out, I found a reference to Mexico’s revolutionary Zapata, whose work was likely familiar to the Spanish Republicans.

Mejor morir a pie que vivir en rodillas.
Men of the South! It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!

Emiliano Zapata (c. 1877-1919), attributed

That’s as far as I took it 20 years ago. Can we get a better attribution, or find Zapata’s likely inspiration, if there is one?

Mexico revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, studio portrait perhaps in 1914. Wikipedia image

Mexico revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, studio portrait perhaps in 1914. Wikipedia image

N.B.: Looked for a photo of FDR at Oxford, but quickly discovered he was nowhere near England on June 19, 1941 — hadn’t thought he would be with the Battle of Britain not really over. Found references to Watson’s delivering of the speech at Harvard, but little else. Good people at the FDR Library’s Pare Lorentz Center confirm that FDR was at the White House the entire day. There’s a story there, about the awarding of the degree.

Update 2017: It was not George Washington.

Especially in 2017, would you do us the favor of saying in comments how you got to this article? Thank you.

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30 Responses to Who said it? ‘Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees’

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    S. J. Cobb is correct, and I guess I need to make that more explicit. In checking the accuracy of a quote, one runs into the brick wall that in accepting a degree from Oxford University, which is in England, FDR did not make the trip at that time.

    From there it gets weird. The speech was made in Massachusetts, and not by FDR at all. There is no doubt they are FDR’s remarks, and since he didn’t have a significant speech writing staff, we can be quite sure FDR himself had a large role in creating the remarks.

    I hope readers will use the links and track down the whole history in any search to verify. The text from the FDR library was not available when I wrote this, as I recall. Happy to see it’s there now.

    Like

  2. S J Cobb says:

    The attribution to FDR needs a bit of explanation. You are correct that FDR was not in England at that time in 1941. This speech was not delivered in the UK at all but in Cambridge, MA and not by FDR. In fact, Major Gen Edwin M. Watson spoke on behalf of FDR there. I am sure that FDR edited and approved this speech even if most of it may be the product of one of his speech writers. A type script of the subject speech can be found at:

    http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/msf/msf01432

    Like

  3. David H Lippman says:

    Mussolini was once quoted as saying, “Better live one day as a lion than 10,000 years as a sheep.”

    When we had pet chickens in the backyard, I would feed them from the back deck, and they would all gather round. I would address them like Mussolini, and say, “Better to live one day as lion, then 10,000 years as a chicken!”

    They weren’t too impressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Dolores Ibárruri, during her speeches and broadcasts in the Spanish Civil War. More discussion here. Alternate […]

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  5. Dave Hill says:

    Ran across the page while searching for more info on the quotation for my own database (https://wist.info/zapata-emiliano/42282/). It remains firmly in the “Attributed” camp for Zapata (even if others had voiced it before), without any particular citation or recorded instance of his saying it having come up.

    You did provide me some good additional quotations to note down. Thanks!

    Like

  6. highballs says:

    One of those things lost to history, but it is clever and inspiring and apparently oft repeated.

    Like

  7. notyourmamasminister01 says:

    “For it would be better to die once and for all than to suffer pain for all one’s life.” Prometheus Bound 480 BC?

    Like

  8. Luis Diaz says:

    Zapata created that quote during the Mexican Revolution.I studied in Mexico and Spain.
    The Spanish used it after and Rosevelt copied it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Andre, I’ve linked to the sources I used in the piece above.

    Like

  10. Andre says:

    Hi all, i’m doing a bit of research regarding this saying as i was looking of getting a tattoo with this wording. i suppose to each it has a different meaning. i’ve asked a few questions and names like Zapata, Che Guevara and Roosevelt was mentioned. the oldest association with this saying apparently was the Vikings. however i still need to trace any evidence confirming this.
    Andre
    Cape Town
    South Africa

    Like

  11. Ed Darrell says:

    Got a link to Midnight Oil? (Not all of us are up on . . . current or past bands . . . )

    Like

  12. Red says:

    Fun fact: this line is repeated in the pre-chorus of Midnight Oil’s “The Power and the Passion,” to great effect.

    Like

  13. […] Ed Darrell: “Who said it: Better to Die on Your Feet than Live on Your Knees?“ […]

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  14. […] in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.”  Tough words.  Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington.  I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men.  Washington […]

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  15. Ed Darrell says:

    Husain ibn Ali ‎(626–680 AD), the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the son of ‘Alī and Fātimah, as well as the third Shī‘ah Imām. said:

    “Death with honor is better than a life of degradation.”

    Majlisi, Bihārul Anwār, vol.44 p. 192

    See: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Husayn_ibn_Ali

    Like

  16. Ed Darrell says:

    Rida, got any links, any citations to back that up? Hussain has been suggested before, but no one could find any documentation.

    Like

  17. Rida says:

    Imam Hussain (A.S) is the one who said “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”

    Like

  18. Ed Darrell says:

    Even Ronald Reagan sorta got in on the act.

    Like

  19. Daniel R Davis says:

    See Aeschylus, “Agamemnon” from “The Oresteia,” line 1383. This is in Robert Fagles’s translation published by Penguin Classics, copyright 1977.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Ed Darrell says:

    Got a link to the Irish saying it? Would love to include the reference if you have one.

    Like

  21. Neil Moran says:

    The Irish always said it

    Like

  22. […] in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.”  Tough words.  Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington.  I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men.  Washington […]

    Like

  23. […] or even dangerous. The forces arrayed against the Jewish nation are great. But as Emiliano Zapata (maybe) said, better to die on your feet than live on your […]

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  24. Ed Darrell says:

    Source, galherz?

    Like

  25. galherz says:

    Imam Hussain (as) said this in the battle of Karbala, in 680 AD.

    Like

  26. Ed Darrell says:

    BUT, I can find no confirmation Euripides ever put that statement down, Eva. Closest I’ve found looked like a claim it came from “Cyclops,” but it’s not in that text.

    I wonder where Euripides would have said that?

    Like

  27. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks, Eva! Got a specific writing to link it to?

    Like

  28. Eva Holmberg says:

    Euripides (ca. 480 BC–406 BC) wrote “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Ed Darrell says:

    Might be. I’m content with the original attribution to Zapata, interested it spread to Spain 20 years later, and tickled Roosevelt invoked it.

    Like

  30. chamblee54 says:

    It might be one of those sayings that has been around a while. Its origins might be murky. People trying to get others to die for their cause are not known to be concerned about logic or ethics.

    Like

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